Dealing with ambiguity and work-related stress

I recently wrote what would become one of my most read articles to date, it was my answer on Quora to the question How stressful is it to be a product manager at a tech company?

This is not unique to product management. Increasingly, our responsibilities as workers in the information age have become more ambiguous. We self-direct more of our work and priorities. We work through influence more often. In short, we are expected to deliver results with little, or conflicting, guidance.

As I reflect back, most of what has helped me personally has been difficult and trying situations leading me to a realization and shift in perspective. I have come to identify the physical feelings in my body associated with stress and anxiety. When I feel these, I take the time to dig deep to concretely identify the source of anxiety. Once I can clearly identify the source of stress, it feels more tangible and manageable. At that point, I can then take specific steps to question the validity of my emotional response to the situation and manage it.

Side note: The American Psychological Association recognizes 7 common sources of stress at work. Here I focus on (1) excessive workloads, (2) not having enough control over job-related decisions, and (3) conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations.

Here are a few things I have learned to do over time in order to manage stress.

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.
― Alan Cohen

Optimize for long-term impact, not short-term recognition. This is more of a principle. Non-sustainable Herculean efforts, such as working throughout the night or weekend, are not something to be proud of or brag about. Such efforts inhibit me from contributing at my best. In a job where careful reflection and decision making is paramount, not being at my peak while at work is not only detrimental to my health but also to the success of my team. As such, I take care of my health. Taking the time to get 8 hours of sleep, to exercise, and prioritizing time to learn and unplug from work has been crucial. I do this not instead of, but rather so that I can do my best work.

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.
― Stephen R. Covey

When in doubt, prioritize. The most common sense of stress is a clear lack of priorities. Inability to prioritize, particularly by leaders of an organization, forces resources to be too thinly spread and ends up causing initiatives to fail. This causes undue stress. As such it is important to prioritize appropriately, and it is everyone’s responsibility to do so, regardless of your level.

Be clear on what is most important. Write out a clear list of outcomes you want to accomplish and stack rank them. Go down the list and commit only to those items that are most important and you can concurrently do a kickass job at, drop the rest. When you realize that there’s no clear priority due to conflicts between teams or conflicting communications from leadership, use this as an opportunity to force clarity by bringing together the folks that are misaligned and forcing clarity among them.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

Differentiate between important and urgent. I learned from Stephen Covey to be vigilant and diligently prioritize what’s important. There are a large number of seemingly urgent activities that don’t move forward our cause, don’t help us truly accomplish the goals that are most important to us. Know how to identify such activities, and eliminate or reduce them so that you can focus on what truly matters. Disabling notifications was a scary, yet powerful, step I took to bring more focus to my work and unleash more of my potential.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
― Lao Tzu

Always question your sense of urgency. We may be trying to meet a deadline. Or simply feeling like we’ve dragged on too long on a given project and need to ‘ship it’ or ‘get it done’. Stop and reflect, what is driving this urgency? What would happen if you got sick and were unable to work on this for a while?

Most of the time, we realize that our fear has been blown out of proportion. There are other options beyond “I must finish this right now or a catastrophe will ensue.” By stopping to reflect on the driver behind your urgency you may realize that there is a 3rd option in which you communicate a new timeline to get the work done properly, everyone adjusts, and you march forth more relaxed.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.
― Stephen R. Covey

Communicate diligently. I’m often scared shitless about letting others down. Disappointing others was, to me, such a strong fear that I was often paralyzed when choosing between what was important vs what others needed from me. To avoid this, when I have to (re)prioritize, I quickly let impacted folks know of the change in my priorities. I also share my prioritization rationale and remain open to their feedback in case I missed any important factors.

It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.
― Steve Maraboli

Prioritize specific outcomes, not fuzzy problems. A manager recently asked me to get crisper when talking about what I was working on. I had a list of projects that all felt very important. Instead, per their recommendation, I concretely defined the outcome that I would be able to accomplish for each of the projects. An outcome that was so tangible I could feel what it would be like to achieve it. Once I’ve defined these outcomes, I could much more easily see what would be the most impactful outcomes and what could be reprioritized.

The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.
– Thích Nhất Hạnh

When in doubt, go zen. Meditation has been instrumental for me. It helps me go from “this is stressful and I hate it” to something more akin to “here’s a situation that’s activating my stress response, let me anchor my attention on my breath and work through it.”

If mindfulness seems complicated or out of reach, consider reading Everyday Zen: Love and Work*. Simple, yet powerful, explanation of zen and meditation.

 

A few concluding notes

  • I realize that the tips above are not for everyone, but I hope that you find them helpful.
  • These tips work best once you’ve built some rapport with your team and established yourself as a strong contributor. If you’re just getting started on a new role, or haven’t been able to perform at the level you’d want, enlist the help of your manager or a mentor.
  • I find it hilarious that until I wrote this blog post I always thought that the phrase “nip in the bud” was actually “nip in the butt”. Lots of butt pinching images have been going through my head in perfectly serious conversations.

I just had to include this final quote somewhere:

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”
– Warren Buffett

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.

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